Reinventing Human Resource Management

Create a System That is Self-Renewing and Continually Improving

HRM11: Strengthen the Senior Executive Service So That It Becomes a Key Element in the Governmentwide Culture Change Effort


The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 established the Senior Executive Service (SES) as a separate personnel system. Incumbents of the SES include most of the top policy and managerial positions in the executive branch except for those requiring Senate confirmation. SES executives potentially serve as key links between the top political appointees and the rest of the career civil servants that staff federal agencies.

By September 1992, about 8,800 SES positions had been allocated by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and 8,200 positions had been filled. About 700 of these were filled by political appointees. The political appointees provide the necessary policy controls, while the career SES managers provide a politically neutral, responsive, skilled group of managers and leaders. As originally envisioned, SES members serve the twin objectives of change and continuity: on the one hand, helping the top officials of a new administration to steer their agencies in the directions set by the newly elected President; on the other, carrying forward the institutional memory of Government and maintaining high standards of public service. It is a balancing act of great delicacy.(1)

Need for Change

OPM's role. The original vision of the SES, as outlined above, is still valid. Missing, at this juncture of its history, is an institution and process to give its members a focus and mission that takes them beyond their individual job and organization performance concerns. OPM's role has been more administrative and technical; as a result, the SES has not evolved to the extent originally envisioned. If the SES is to evolve, OPM's role must become more facilitative and consultative, working in concert with the agencies.

Change involves a long-term commitment. The SES can provide the continuity and long-term tenacity required for significant change governmentwide. This change will involve the federal government culture. Managers at all levels will have to view their roles differently than many do now. A recent Brookings Institution report called for "[a] performance-driven federal government . . . staffed by managers and administrators imbued with a new entrepreneurial spirit. . . . What matters is the ability of the leaders to inspire, to infuse value. . . . Such leaders are in short supply."(2)

The Complex Mix of SES Positions and Roles. It was intended that the SES consist of generalist managers with the ability and incentives to take on assignments where they would be most effective in accomplishing agency missions. For many reasons, however, this objective has not been met.

There is a small group of senior executives who occupy key leadership positions linking the President's top appointed officials with those charged with carrying out public policy. These key executives can be career or non-career. They will play a pivotal role in the success of government programs and policies and in reinventing the executive branch.

The majority of senior executives, however, now serve in the SES because of their technical expertise, often as key advisors and managers of support staffs or as operational managers responsible for parts of line (legislative) programs, rather than as agency-level leaders and program executives. While all are important positions, this mixture of roles makes it difficult to develop and manage the SES as a resource for agency management as originally intended.

Tensions Between Career Senior Executives and Political Appointees. Both the Merit Systems Protection Board and the General Accounting Office have pointed to the poor relationships that often exist between career SES members and political appointees.(3) These relationships often emerge as significant management problems. A certain amount of tension is natural; however, there are a number of aggravating circumstances that should be alleviated.

Over the years there has been an increase in the number of non-career SES appointees. This in turn has meant fewer career executives in key leadership positions and fewer career jobs that are meaningful.(4) In addition, the short tenure of political appointees means that they provide less program stability and continuity because of the abbreviated time frames in which they operate. Change in large organizations takes time, is usually incremental, and needs tenacious and persistent leadership over a period of years.

Agency Weaknesses in Managing the SES. Compounding this problem has been agency behavior in selecting, developing, using, and rewarding executives. Whereas some agencies have done a good job in creating an effective executive cadre, others have not treated their senior executives as a key resource or integrated the selection and development of their executives with their vision of a more effective agency. Because OPM can continually allocate additional SES positions, agencies have less incentive to rethink their current use of SES positions. In many cases, the focus needs to be changed from creating more SES positions to better use of current positions.

The need to more effectively select and develop agency SES cadres is compounded by the expected exodus of SES members in the coming years. A National Academy of Public Administration study estimates that over "one third of the SES--or 2,600 executives--will be eligible to retire" by January 1994.(5) Most will also have completed three years at their highest salary rate, thus creating another incentive to retire. This not only provides opportunities to select executives who can contribute quickly to agency change efforts, but allows agencies to improve the diversity of their SES membership. To achieve this, agency leadership must focus on these needs and incorporate solutions into their strategic planning efforts.

The SES as a Culture Change Force. For the most part, the executive branch projects an image of a hierarchical, highly conservative, and risk-averse culture. Trust levels are low at all levels of government and in most organizations. Most employees including executives are uncomfortable with this situation and are ready to work toward solutions.

Vice President Gore has offered one alternative. He expects that the National Performance Review will result in and require significant culture change in the executive branch. The real drivers of change will have to be the career and non-career executives. In other words, significant culture change must rely on leadership.

The reinventing government effort intends to decentralize authority and accountability to a greater extent. Management will have fewer rules, will be held accountable for results, and will be responsible for significant changes in the years to come. Because culture change on a scale as envisioned by the President, Vice President, and Cabinet is a long-term endeavor, institutions and processes must be developed to support this change. The SES should be managed as a strategic resource to bring about change governmentwide and at the agency level. If institutional leadership means cultivating a shared view of a new direction and culture, then OPM and its director must create new vehicles that help build such a shared view and remove the perception of OPM as a controller and regulator.

The following actions have been developed to support these culture changes. Agency leadership must bear a large measure of responsibility for culture change and the creation of very different management values and behaviors. These changes cannot be made immediately; rather, they will take time to allow for adequate research, experimentation, learning, and consultation with an array of stakeholders. The actions provide for such a beginning.


1. Create and reinforce a corporate perspective within the Senior Executive Service that supports governmentwide culture change. (1)

To change the culture of the executive branch, a corporate approach to managing executive resources will be needed. Although agencies have primary responsibility for engendering change within their own organizations, the director of OPM is an important link between the government as a whole and individual agencies. As a leader for change and a consultant to agency management, OPM should foster a corps of executives with a corporate vision, committed to fundamental change over the long term and, at the same time, reflective of the civil service values of merit and diversity.

OPM can work toward this goal in the following ways:

--- Ensuring that the corporate vision for change is adequately reflected in OPM's governmentwide management development curricula (e.g., the Federal Executive Institute and the Management Development Centers); OPM will ensure that management development emphasizes the vision of government in the 21st century, the ways executives will foster that change effort, and concepts for a more effective executive SES corps.

--- Recommending governmentwide SES policies and management development strategies in support of government culture change efforts.

--- Overseeing an executive information system that both supports the executive search process and provides status reports on the SES in support of policy decisions, agency succession planning, and development efforts.

2. Promote an agency corporate executive level succession planning model. (1)

OPM, in consultation and coordination with agencies, should promote a corporate succession planning model for agencies to use in identifying, selecting, and developing their senior executive staffing resources. These efforts should be linked to each agency's strategic plans and budget, support their unique and specific needs, and incorporate such objectives as broadening the agency's skill mix and improving the diversity of the agency's SES membership.

3. Enhance voluntary mobility within and between agencies for top senior executive positions in government. (1)

Data show that, prior to entering the SES, incumbents have held a variety of positions and moved functionally and geographically; yet, once in the SES, their career paths have been relatively insular, indicating that the SES corps has been underused.(6) In other words, many senior executives stay in the same functional area or agency and are not encouraged to make use of their abilities to serve in a wider range of jobs or different agencies. The National Academy of Public Administration has called for enhanced and broadened mobility strategies geared not only to agency requirements, but to the corporate objectives of the government as a whole.(7)

OPM will act as a catalyst to encourage mobility of executives both within and between agencies. The purpose would be two-fold: first, to assist agencies in identifying executives who have demonstrated, through actual performance, the ability to bring about changes or manage in different circumstances and who can apply the values inherent in reinvented government principles while dealing with system realities; and second, to provide executives an opportunity to broaden their skills and perspectives and to be placed in positions where they can make their greatest contribution to a reinvented government.

This proposal is intended to establish an SES cadre that not only takes a governmentwide view of its role, but is a vehicle to help individuals move to positions where their special expertise is needed. By no means does the proposal intend to make every senior executive mobile and a generalist, since there are many executives whose expertise, experience, and interests are tied to a particular agency, occupation, or position. In fact, most executives have been chosen for their technical program expertise and need to remain where they are most effective. This is normally an agency issue and needs to be left in the hands of agency management with suitable safeguards in place.

Cross References to Other NPR Accompanying Reports

Creating Quality Leadership and Management, QUAL03: Strengthen the Corps of Senior Leaders.

Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA04: Develop a Skilled Management Team Among Political Appointees and Career Staff.

Reengineering Through Information Technology, IT13: Provide Training and Technical Assistance in Information Technology to Federal Employees.


1. U.S. Office of Personnel Management, "Handbook for the Senior Executive Service," Washington, D.C., July 1993, p. 3. (Draft.)

2. DiIulio, Jr., John J., Gerald Garvey, and Donald F. Kettl, Improving Government Performance: An Owners Manual (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1993), pp. 73-74.

3. U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, Subcommittee on Civil Service, "Political Appointees in Federal Agencies," testimony by Bernard L. Ungar, Director, Federal Human Resource Management Issues, General Government Division, General Accounting Office, October 26, 1989, p. 13. See also U.S. Merit System Protection Board, The Senior Executive Service: Views of Former Federal Executives (Washington, D.C., October 1989), pp. 19- 21.

4. Ibid.

5. National Academy of Public Administration, Paths to Leadership Executive Succession Planning in the Federal Government (Washington, D.C., December 1992), p. 1.

6. Sanders, Ron, "Reinventing the Senior Executive Service," Virginia, June 1993, p. 8. (Draft.)

7. National Academy of Public Administration, Paths to Leadership, Executive Succession Planning in the Federal Government: Report Summary (Washington, D.C., December 1992), p. 4.

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